How To Visit The San Blas Islands (Panama’s Hidden Paradise)
Chances are you haven’t yet heard of the San Blas Islands, a Panamanian island archipelago in the Caribbean Sea.
If you’re looking for extremely chill, tropical Caribbean islands with pristine beaches, look no further.
These islands are home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world: think aqua blue water, white sand beaches, palm tree after palm tree, and clear water with reefs and fish you’ll see while snorkeling.
There will be nothing in sight in any direction you look - except for other mini islands that are almost exactly the same.
And while the islands are part of Panama and close to the mainland, it is an autonomous region led by the Kuna tribe.
Most of the islands don’t have cell service, internet, stores, hotels, or even electricity. You’ll feel like you’ve completely transported to a remote, tropical paradise the minute you arrive. And it feels great.
Sold on San Blas?
How to visit the San Blas Islands:
First, you’ll need to plan how you’re getting to the San Blas Islands and where you’ll stay. There are two ways you can get there:
Boat: this is the most common way to get to San Blas. You have to drive through the jungle and get to the dock on the Caribbean side of Panama before you take a boat to each island. This is what we did with our tour company (more information in the next section).
Airplane: supposedly this is much faster than the jungle drive + boat combo according to this video. You can fly from Panama City on a tiny plane to and from the San Blas Islands.
Luxury huts: I have seen people stay in luxury huts on social media that are above ground or over water. Supposedly they have real beds and (very basic) amenities.
Hammocks: Our private tour had us moving via boat from island to island and we slept in hammocks that were inside open huts.
Franklin Island: I honestly don’t know that much about Franklin Island, so I recommend you look into it if you’re interested. I know they have a hostel (this one) that is popular for backpackers and budget travelers.
Going With a Tour Company and What Our Experience Was Like
We went with San Blas Adventures, a company offering both group tours and private group tours. Since I was working + traveling with a study abroad company, we booked a private tour with awesome guides (shoutout to Peter and Larry)!
The tour included our pickup (and drop off) from Panama City, the boat transportation to all the islands each day, all meals included once the tour started/ended, and “accommodation” - sleeping in hammocks inside open-air huts.
Our experience started with a 4:00 am pickup from our hotel in Panama City and driving through the jungle all the way to the Caribbean coast. It was a very bumpy ride but only took a few hours.
We stopped at a grocery store before we left Panama City to stock up on snacks and any other last-minute necessities like sunscreen. Once you’re off the mainland and on the San Blas Islands, there are no stores to buy anything! Nope, not even a little convenience store.
Once at the dock, we loaded our luggage and snacks onto a boat that took us to the first island, which was about an hour or two away. We had the tiny island to ourselves, ate lunch that was so nicely cooked by our guides, took naps on the beach, and goofed around with each other.
We then went to the island that would host us for the night - we had all the islands to ourselves the entire time - for dinner, drinks, and sleep.
Peter and Larry brought all the food we would need for the weekend in coolers. The meals were really good - think fresh fish, lobster, vegetables, fresh cut fruit, and more.
Each day our group would sleep in, read books, play volleyball, take photos, go snorkeling, or just enjoy relaxing without internet or cell service trying to steal our attention. We never felt bored…nor did we get sick of each other. Go figure ;)
Visiting a Local Kuna Community
One of our nights was spent visiting a local Kuna community. The Kuna live in communities of several thousand people. They have their own laws, schools, homes, etc.
Our tour company had booked a night staying on the edge of where they live and we got to walk around and talk to some of the people. They were SO friendly and nice.
There were a lot of kids - most Kuna have 6-10 kids per family - and it was fun to run around and play with them outside. We were even invited into one of their homes, which we heard was very rare. It was a simple hut home with one lightbulb, a hammock to sleep in, and a few other necessities.
It was really interesting to visit and interact with Kuna during our trip to their islands, and I recommend you do so too if you get the chance. (I believe you have to book this with your tour company, so do some research before you go. I don’t think you’re allowed to just show up, nor do I know how you’d even get there without a tour company).
Traveling San Blas in December
The weather on the islands was perfect every day when we went in early December. The temperature was warm and humid with sunny skies. We had one short rain shower on our last day in the morning that quickly cleared up.
The seas are a little rough this time of year, and one day our boat ride to the next island was super bumpy since the water was so choppy!
Luckily we had a great driver and they supplied us with a plastic sheet to place over our bags so they didn’t get wet. We got completely soaked on that ride, but it was part of the adventure!
What to Expect in the San Blas Islands
Like I wrote above, the San Blas Islands don’t have cell service, internet, stores, hotels, or even electricity (except for basic lightbulbs here and there).
We slept in hammocks under huts, used bucket showers, and the toilets were flushed by using a bucket of water. There were no stores or true “civilization” nearby, except maybe another boat tour in the far distance or a Kuna person going fishing.
For us it was similar to camping in the sense that you have very basic accommodation (hammocks under a hut with sand “floors”) and bucket showers/toilets. I’ve only gone camping once in college at a Dave Matthews concert and did not enjoy the camping experience (haha), but honestly this really was okay.
It was relaxing to fall asleep to the sound of waves rolling in and out and feel the warm, tropical air.
Since you’re out on remote islands, the stargazing at night is incredible. You can see SO many stars and they’re really bright. We enjoyed making s’mores on our last night and laying on mats to look up at the stars.
Overall, expect to truly be and feel like you’re in a remote island paradise.
Leave your worries on the mainland.
Read a book, have real, deep conversations, play volleyball or other sports with your group, meditate, eat fresh food, and have some rum.
Enjoy the time you have on your tiny little slice of paradise.
You’ll go back to “reality” (in the mainland/Panama City) before you know it.